by Brad Racino
New statewide laws took effect this year requiring all government agencies, including the city of San Diego and SANDAG, to post online information about employee salaries.
The measure originally required names to be attached to titles and total pay for genuine accountability, but after six different legislative committees debated the language and watered it down, the law now mandates only a link to the California’s State Controller’s Office website. Salaries on that website exclude public employees’ names.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat whose district includes Bell — a city notorious in recent years for its corrupt officials — pushed five of her seven transparency bills through the Legislature last year to see them signed into law by the governor. They’re called the Political Conduct, Ethics & Public Trust Acts of 2014.
The new laws include:
- Harsher fines for politicians who misuse campaign funds
- An end to the practice of paying restitution from those same funds
- Preventing lobbyists from hosting political fundraisers at their homes and in secret
- A change in how vote-by-mail applications are collected in order to avoid campaigns tampering with the ballots.
Garcia’s colleagues in the Assembly weren’t happy.
“It was pretty universally opposed by everybody,” Garcia told inewsource. “But given the environment, given the media attention, they kind of didn’t have a choice.”
A history of corruption
Garcia is a newcomer to politics. Her hometown of Bell Gardens sits adjacent to the city of Bell, a Los Angeles suburb that became synonymous with political scandal after city officials were caught siphoning off millions from taxpayers, leading the town to near-bankruptcy in the late 2000s. Eight city workers were arrested, the council overturned and the city manager and his assistant eventually were imprisoned for a total of 23 years.
Garcia helped organize the recalls and resignations. She wanted to learn more about her city administrators, but found getting the information through the California Public Records Act nearly impossible.
Begrudgingly, the former math teacher of 13 years ran for the Assembly and won in November 2012.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she said, “but it became that sense of responsibility.”
Little more than a year later, three Democratic state senators, one after the other, became mired in corruption scandals:
In January 2014, Roderick Wright was convicted of eight counts of perjury and voter fraud. One of the charges involved his claim that he lived in Inglewood when he lived outside his district in Baldwin Hills. In February, Ron Calderon of Montebello faced charges of fraud, bribery and money laundering. In March, Leland Yee of San Francisco was charged with racketeering, gun running and wire fraud.
With the senator scandals as her backdrop, Garcia saw an opportunity to introduce a package of transparency bills with a singular goal — accountability. No more secret fundraisers with lobbyists; stricter fines against misusing campaign funds; a fix to a vote-by-mail loophole; and public disclosure of compensation with names attached to titles.
The last proposal was important because, according to Garcia, simply looking at an employee’s position doesn’t show that “the same person has three different titles.”
“And that’s how they inflate their salaries,” she said.
But it didn’t work.
“There was a lot of opposition, a lot of people who wanted it dead,” Garcia said, “so we had to compromise.”
The law as it stands now requires one of two things: either an agency provide in a conspicuous location on its website the annual compensation of its elected officials, officers, and employees by title, or a link to the state controller’s Government Compensation in California website.
The majority of San Diego agencies surveyed by inewsource went with the latter.
Moving the ball forward
Peter Scheer, the executive director of the open government group First Amendment Coalition, said there’s nothing wrong with Garcia’s new requirements — but he doesn’t believe they go far enough.
“Citizens know people by their names, not by government jobs classification,” he said.
Scheer pointed to a number of practical reasons why names are key in keeping government officials accountable: in investigating complaints of nepotism in the Senate, or workers engaged in pension spiking on their way toward retirement, or even employees padding their salary by holding multiple positions within an agency.
“If you don’t get the names, then you don’t get the full compensation,” Scheer said.
Garcia said the new law is not ideal without names, but “I figured at a minimum I’m moving the ball forward,” she said.
And while the new law doesn’t have any teeth — meaning no penalties for noncompliance as of now — the assemblywoman encourages Californians who notice their local agencies missing the new information to notify her office.
Out of six city and county agencies in San Diego County that inewsource surveyed in late January, only the Metropolitan Transit System was missing the information on its website.
“We were unaware that that was a new requirement,” said MTS spokesman Rob Schupp. He had the website changed by the end of the day — it now links to the state controller’s office like the others.
No names, just titles.